Making Peace with Discord and the Five Essentials for Working Together.
At the conclusion of my Masters of Conflict Resolution program at Antioch University, the Dean asked us all if we were happy with the title of the degree, or if we thought it should be called something else.
I was glad he asked that question, because it seemed to me that all the valuable territory we covered wasn’t entirely about conflict, and that full resolution of some conflicts is often not possible or even necessarily desirable.
Conflict Transformation, Conflict Engagement, Human Dynamics, Conflict Management… we spent a good half an hour discussing and debating this matter, but made no progress at all on deciding the new title of the program, even though most of us agreed that it should be changed.
There we were, a room full of students who had nearly completed two years of constant immersion in analyzing the many facets and forms and causes of conflict on all levels — interpersonal, inter-group, intra-group, and international — and how to constructively resolve such conflicts, yet we couldn’t resolve this one, very simple, rather academic, conflict amongst ourselves.
A friend of mine that runs a non-profit is part of a small committee where the attendees talk loudly and interrupt each other constantly. She can’t get a word in sideways because there is not a nanosecond between comments, just one long run-on sentence constructed between the other four people. And the meetings typically last three hours.
A number of us attended a City Council meeting to broach the subject of celebrating Indigenous People’s Day. That goal was nearly derailed by one person who, arriving late, decided unilaterally to make an issue about the meeting structure itself, with no regard at all for how the rest of the group felt about it.
The woman sitting next to me commented, “There’s always one who’s going to ruin it for the rest of us!”
We leftists are a funny lot. We’re so concerned with justice that we see injustice everywhere, including in others’ attempts at addressing injustice. We’ll nearly come to blows over the strategy of our anti-war campaigns.
Suggest a model for constructive communication? Another communication geek will locate the one possible situation in which that model could backfire.
Want to talk about inclusion? Someone will inevitably note that even talking about inclusion and exclusion reinforces the structures that generate exclusion.
How is it that we peacemakers can be such an argumentative, even contentious, lot, no matter how high we hold the ideals of cooperation, egalitarianism and win-win solutions?
Because we care. We care a lot. We want so badly to get it exactly right that sometimes we shoot ourselves, and others, in the foot. When we believe we see an answer that will pull us even just a teensy bit back from the brink of catastrophic self-destruction, we want to push for it. And rightly so.
Except, sometimes we’re so sure we’re right that we think pushing our position, our answer, justifies being just a bit of an ass, for the good of all, of course. And that’s precisely when things start turning seriously sideways.
Do you want the world to be more peaceful? For us all to get along? Well then, guess what? We need to get much better at fighting. But fighting fairly, constructively, and towards a clear goal.
We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are so righteously, obviously, good, that we can get away with talking over others at our own meetings, demanding that a whole group of people who show up for one stated purpose join you in a battle of your own making at the drop of a feather, and imagining that if the others would just do things our way, everything would turn out fine!
We are so intensely focused on engaging our conflicts with Them, the Others, strategizing and planning, that we too often fall short of the values for which we claim to be fighting, when it comes to our friends and allies.
Yes, I mean you. And me too, of course.
We want to live in harmony with all life on Earth, right? Then see if you can go one day without picking an unnecessary fight with any of the humans you encounter. The key word is unnecessary, because to ignore the things that are genuinely harming us or others is of course going too far. See if you can go one day without sidestepping a problem that needs to be addressed.
Get over the idea that you have somehow earned a little leeway, a right to be a little bit of an ass, just because you’ve worked so hard towards making the world better.
Get over the idea that you have to prove you’re not that soft and fuzzy, that you can be a badass too, or that you’re not afraid to alienate the people with whom you are working because you’re so passionately committed to The Cause.
Instead, let’s take some of that determination and passion and channel it into a disciplined dedication to conducting our conflicts constructively. We need to be mindful of how we are interacting with others, individually, and in groups. We have to practice to rewire our brains for better responses to the stresses of our times. This takes a willing steadfastness, but it will pay off hugely in the long run.
And for crying out loud, give your meetings a little structure. There are loads of simple, light-handed yet highly effective frameworks available to suit every kind of organization and meeting need. Remember, a little well-planned structure makes space for more voices, rather than trampling them.
If you’re part of a group, remember that everything you do or say as a part of that group reflects on the whole group. You could accidentally sabotage your cause with one little poorly-considered comment in front of the wrong person or video camera. If you’re speaking as part of a group, then keep your mouth shut unless you’re sure the group will be okay with what you have to say.
It’s not enough to read Nonviolent Communication and ooh and aah over how brilliant it is. It is a brilliant book, but that means nothing if you keep letting yourself off the hook for your own damaging communication. Good communication requires constant self-reflection.
We have to continually check the impulse to either avoid some problem in front of us, or behave aggressively towards the people with whom we’ve aligned ourselves. The work we are doing is hard enough without turning our allies into enemies. It just gums up the works, slows us down, and discourages our partners. We can’t afford what it costs us.
Before you speak, ask yourself, “Is this a really helpful suggestion, observation or criticism, or am I just creating an obstacle?” Before you act, ask yourself, “Is this action going to further our goals or interfere with them?”
Respectfully hold each other accountable, and practice saying “I’m sorry” as often as is appropriate. Own and clean up your part of the mess as best you can. Remember to continually do the inner work, as well as the outer work.
In conclusion, here are the five essentials for working together:
- Establish a framework for the group early on, including meeting structure, roles, responsibilities, and how to ensure accountability to the group. This includes ad hoc groups.
- Establish internal norms (organizational culture) for behavior and communication explicitly. This need only take up 15 minutes at the beginning of your first meeting. List these shared expectations on a big sheet of paper and hang it at every meeting, reminding people that this is to what they all agreed. Add new items as need be if group members want so.
- Set standards of behavior for being associated with that group in relationship to the world outside that group.
- Learn to apologize, and to accept apologies gracefully. Assume everyone is doing the best they can at any given time.
- Make it a part of your life’s work to continually improve your interpersonal skills, especially communication.
Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has also published a book on inter-personal conflict called, “Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship,” published by the American University of Sovereign Nations. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. She is currently working on a solar punk novel set in southwestern New Mexico.